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07.11.2008

Subjectivity, Aesthetics, and the Evaluation of Wine

If you'd rather drink your wine instead of intellectualizing about it, close your browser window now. However, if you're game for an occasional foray into philosophy, then let's talk about something I've been "arguing" about with one of my readers.

The question at hand is whether subjective judgments have any place in proper wine criticism. To put it plainly, should wine critics evaluations of wine include notions of "enjoyment" or "personal preference" ? If you want to witness the origins of this discussion, you'll need to read the comment thread on my recent post about the Myth of the Monolithic Palate.

My reader friend Arthur, who runs his own wine blog called Winesooth, suggests that the inclusion of such judgments in wine criticism may be responsible for the fact that people blindly follow some critics and their scores. According to him, if I correctly interpret his point of view, the wine world would probably be a much better place if critics focused their evaluations of wine on purely "objective criteria" like flavor, texture, color, finish, aroma, etc. The idea being that it's much better for a critic to simply tell you, for instance, the ingredients and cooking method for a given plate of food, and let you make up your own mind about it, than to tell you how wonderful a dish it is (in addition to what it might be made of).

I, on the other hand, suggest that not only is it impossible to eliminate subjectivity from wine criticism, but that such subjectivity itself is quite possibly the most important aspect of wine criticism. I'm of the opinion that merely telling you the ingredients of a dish (or the organoleptic qualities of wine) is not criticism at all, or if it is a kind of criticism, it is certainly not useful. I've had lots of Merlot that tastes like plum, cherry, and chocolate, but some of it is total crap, while others transport me to fantastic, sensual places.

If you'd like to dive deeper into the philosophical nature of aesthetic criticism, and wine criticism in particular you'd be hard pressed to find a better set of blog posts than two recent ones I recently discovered.

The first is by a guy named Ben Sherwin, who barrels headlong into the guts of aesthetic epistemology by asking, and answering the question, "how do we know if one wine is really better than another?" Specifically, he addresses the question of whether Lafite-Rothschild is really, truly better than Boone's Farms, and why? (The answer, in case you were wondering, is most definitely yes).

Ben's post inspired Keith Levenberg to explore the nature of subjectivity versus objectivity in aesthetic evaluations. Keith suggests that those who are experts in an aesthetic field are capable of making objective judgments about things which most people find to be subjective. Many people like one artist or another, but expert critics, and the establishment that they make up as a group are quite capable of making a definitive judgment about what artwork is better than another, or even what really constitutes art in the first place.

In the service of my argument with Arthur, I might suggest that the subjective judgments of wine critics (especially those who actually know what the heck they're doing, as opposed to hacks and bloggers ;-) are actually produced through the synthesis of the type of objective aesthetic judgments that Keith explicates nicely in his post.

The appreciation of beauty is ultimately an emotional, subjective act, but the detailed and complete apprehension of beauty, especially in its complex forms such as music, art, and wine requires a body of knowledge and a set of objective observations. The two go hand in hand. Appreciation without knowledge may be pleasurable, but it is shallow. Apprehension without appreciation may be detailed, but it ignores our humanity and the truth of emotion.

We look to critics not just to analyze, but to make aesthetic judgments, and their assessments are necessarily born of the human condition: we have both perceptions and emotions, and we can no more divorce the two than we can give up our humanity. The real question is whose perceptions and emotions do we trust?

Thanks to Jack at Fork & Bottle for pointing me to Keith's post, which led me to Ben's.

Comments (19)

ryan wrote:
07.12.08 at 1:53 AM

"(especially those who actually know what the heck they're doing, as opposed to hacks and bloggers)"

So by extension you, I and the many other wine bloggers who do seem to know something about wine are the same as Hacks? Good to know Vinography: A Wine Blog/hack

BTW nice post, wine for me is and always will be subjective. Dependant on to many factors and too dependent on the fashion of the day.

Rajiv wrote:
07.12.08 at 5:14 AM

In the book Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine, Barry C. Smith writes about objectivity and subjectivity in tasting.

"Bach is a better musician than Barry Manilow, but some people will prefer to listen to the latter. These personal preferences cannot be criticized, people have the right to choose what they wish: it is up to them. But it is not up to them, or a mere matter of personal inclination, to determine who is the better painter or musician, or which is the better wine. There are standards by which we can judge a wine, or musical score, or painting to be better than another, and these reflect discernible properties of those objects, though it may take practice and experience to recognize them. Once our perceptions and discriminations are sufficiently refined we can appreciate the reasons for evaluating wines as we do."

Steve wrote:
07.12.08 at 8:01 AM

This discussion makes me wonder if blind tasting is the appropriate way to evaluate wine. Part of the subjective appreciation of a wine, it seems to me, is knowledge of where it comes from, who made it, etc. If you're tasting blind (or double blind), that is totally objective.

Alder wrote:
07.12.08 at 9:30 AM

Ryan,

Hopefully you could see my tongue in my cheek with that line!!

Brooke wrote:
07.12.08 at 9:46 AM

"The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation." Pater wrote this in the conclusion of one of my favorite books, The Renaissance. He goes on to say that "with this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions..." Philosophy and criticism helps us to "gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us."

I suppose what I'm saying - via another man's words - is that, 1) blog posts like Alder's (and Ben's and Keiths) are fantastic ways to jar us out of complacently following someone's criticisms, and 2) philosophy and criticism is an awakening of sorts, and how can any waking of the mind or spirit NOT be subjective?

I like to remind myself that it's just wine, that I shouldn't take it all so seriously. But, if it were "just wine," would we all be as engrossed in it as we are?

Blake wrote:
07.12.08 at 5:48 PM

Alder, I would argue that American wine criticism attempts to be as objective as possible -- it's seen as the ultimate goal. Why else compare all wines to each other on the 100-point scale, with no accounting for the fact that a crisp Sauvignon Blanc is called for on some occasions when even a first-growth Bordeaux just wouldn't taste good?
I would also argue that this quest for complete objectivity has greatly affected the way wine is consumed, in some ways for the better, as we are less tolerant of winemaking flaws. But there are negative aspects as well that other people have ranted about at book length and I'll leave it to them.
All of that said, I'd say of the quest for objectivity what some smart person said about democracy: It's a lousy system, but it's the best we have.

Alder wrote:
07.12.08 at 6:07 PM

Steve,

My thoughts are that the parameters you outline (who made it, where it came from, etc.) are actually objective criteria rather than subjective. But your point about the fact that blind tasting robs us of some of the objective criteria we might use to judge a wine's typicity are well taken.

jade wrote:
07.12.08 at 10:10 PM

Great post. What's really great is that for the most part, you could take out the word "wine" and replace it with nearly anything that people consume and it still rings true.

vinophilosopher wrote:
07.13.08 at 9:02 AM

Great post. Two things. First, perceptions and emotions isn't really the best way to contrast objectivity and subjectivity. The better contrast is made in language, specifically different linguistic modes, i.e., descriptive, e.g., x is red, x tastes like blackberry, x has a mouthfeel consistent with sunflower oil, etc.; and evaluative, e.g., x is good/bad, etc. Another interesting topic in the same vein as this post is whether there is anything wrong with including subjective preferences in the evaluation of wine or whether they ought to be excluded altogether. Some critics, e.g., say things like "this is my kind of wine" and then apply a high rating (or do the opposite). I'll stop here b/c this could probably turn into a dissertation :-)

Rajiv wrote:
07.13.08 at 9:08 AM

Vinophilosopher-

Good point. I would say that objective language is very hard, if not impossible to achieve. Every type of description has positive or pejorative connotations (though one person's compliment may be another's pejorative, e.g. "barnyard").

Irene King wrote:
07.13.08 at 8:25 PM

When I find a wine I really, really like, I will call it a George Clooney wine. I'm pretty sure that a lot of guys I know would disagree with my perception of the ultimate pleasurable wine. No matter how skilled the taster, I feel that personal preference/taste/likes, etc., absolutely have to come into play.

If Robert Parker raves about a wine, for instance, I may find it mediocre. If he finds a wine mediocre, I may love it. Not that my palate is better or worse than his. Just different. It's subjective until personal preference shows its head.

07.14.08 at 10:51 AM

Alder, this is a truly superb post and should be considered "required reading" for aspiring wine writers and wine lovers. Great post.

07.14.08 at 1:35 PM

We seem to be working on the assumption that a single taster, while tasting a single wine is capable of analyzing, in thier mind, all of the attributes of a wine. If this were indeed true then an argument could be made that tasting and evaluation could be done in an objective manner.

I take issue with this assumption. The possible number a variables or pieces of information that can be gathered from the sensory exploration of wine is far too great to be analyzed and catalogued by even the most experienced ( note I am making a statement that it is learned beharviour, not a genetic one ) taster. Therefore tasters have to prioritize the information they seek to gather from a wine. Some tasters may be more interested in acid-balance, others in fruit profile, body, weight concentration, or the presence of 'flaws'. As we know from quantum physics; the more we focus on one aspect of something the less we know about the other aspects (a bastardization of Hiesenberg's Uncertainty Principal). This really grinds away at the notion that there can be anything 'objective' about wine criticism. For instance a winemaker such as myself would have a completely different set of priorities in terms of assesing wine quality than a wine critic, sommelier etc.

In Alders previous post about the 'Monolithic Pallet', the argument was based on the 'Big Three's' opinion on the top bordeaux. These are the benchmarks wines for a benchmark region. Perhaps we might see a different pattern emerge if we were to review thier scoring of wines that are not benchmarks or of regions that would not be considered benchmark. I think you would begin seeing a much greater variation in scores among wine critics. I think the source of this variantion would be the result of each taster having a different set of priorities in terms of assigning measurements of wine quality.

Great Post as usual.

Rich wrote:
07.15.08 at 8:14 PM

These are my guidelines:
1. It doesn't matter to me if a critic is being objective or subjective, as long as they make it clear which criteria they are following.
2. For a critic's ratings & views to be truly useful, you have to have some experience with the critic's reviews in order to calibrate it to your preferences. (For example, I have a friend who reviews films consistently, and I consistently dislike whatever she recommends, and vice versa. Thus, I find her reviews useful.)
3. Ratings are relative and only valid within a category. (For example, if a critic gives one cabernet a 94 and another cabernet a 88 and a chardonnay a 92, you can conclude the critic views the first cabernet as superior to the second cabernet, but you can't conclude whether the critic views the chardonnay as superior or inferior to either cabernet.)
4. If you know little or nothing about a category of wine, but want to buy something "good", you are better off discussing what you want with a good wine merchant than using numerical ratings.
5. Many vintners worry excessively (and with good cause) about the numerical ratings they get from popular wine critics because many people ignore guideline #4 and it does impact the vintner's revenues.
6. If you get all worked up complaining all the time about wine critics, you are probably jealous of them.
These guidelines aren't for everyone, but they have worked for me.

Pantagruel wrote:
07.16.08 at 2:16 PM

Objective wine critiquing is a myth.
Questions of balance and quality are subjective. You can study the pronouncements of other professionals and train yourself to taste in a similar fashion. But the final judgements of "good v. bad" or "balanced v. unbalanced" will be personal.

Henry wrote:
07.17.08 at 11:55 AM

"The real question is whose perceptions and emotions do we trust?"

For me this is the only possible way to approach critics (or bloggers) comments on wine. First you have to know what sort of wine you like (tougher a job than it sounds...) and then you need to find someone with whome you at least most of the time agree (or disagree) with. Then stick with him / her. In other words I don't seem any easy way out here...

07.22.08 at 7:01 AM

As a learned wine steward (I can't stand being called a sommmelier) that worked for several years in the retail wine world, I think objectivity in discussing the pros and cons of a certain wine is pure crap! Look at these wine rags that assign numerical values to "rate" wines. In my mind, that's akin to assigning a value to "rate" a human being! (think about the docks of New Orleans or Savannah circa 1850), BUT.....It's subjective nonetheless.

You know in the wine world, money talks and Two Buck Chuck walks. For those idiots that think you have to spend at least fifty bucks to get a "decent" bottle of wine, now that's ignorance. Subjective ignorance?.....yes, but still ignorance.

The declining dollar like it or not and personal preference (for whatever reason) still rules how people make choices when buying wine. You SHOULD choose what you buy using tasting notes as a guide and forget about those assinine numerical ratings. But, the "herd mentality" remains prevolent in our society and that's not going to change.

If we all liked the same thing, life and enjoyment of wine would be VERY boring to say the least. LET the masses drink Beringer White Zin or K-J Chard and leave the good stuff for people with more discerning palates.

I stand by my comments, but as in all discussion about wine....IT'S SUBJECTIVE!

Shea wrote:
07.31.08 at 12:03 PM

It is certainly interesting how this topic has bloomed in the wine community. I think this discussion
needs some clarification, however.

What, ultimately, is the goal of tasting wine? What is the goal of evaluating wine? Stating something is
objective often suggests links to some sort of abstract 'truth' quality. Stating something is subjective
popularly suggests some sort of 'relativism'. I do not think these are:

1. accurate descriptions of the nature of objectivity and subjectivity,

2. accurately linked to the many diverse goals of tasting and evaluating wine.

To be strict, one might differentiate deciding whether or not one 'likes' something from an 'aesthetic'
experience. Liking or disliking is relative and does not demand anything more. However, a claim of
aesthetic evaluation usually subscribes to objectivity by an implicit demand that everyone else - that
is, all other subjects - agree with the evaluation of something as 'beautiful' (let's keep designations
such as good or bad out of the aesthetic realm). An aesthetic experience of some object (e.g. wine),
then, must be filtered through a given subject. But, the objective element arises in this demand for universal acclamation. It is as though the subject has bridged the gap between the particular object
being experienced and some form of universal objectivity that (theoretically, although not practically) binds all subjects together.

In any case, is the goal of drinking/evaluating wine really to enter into this type of aesthetic experience? Criticism itself is almost never an aesthetic experience. Experiencing a painting is completely different from criticizing it. Criticism is always retrospective and never universal. But, at the same time, if a critic is making claims about the objective value or truth of something, then they are deigning to make their words have universal value. That seems to miss the fundamental paradox of aesthetic experience - that we experience what we cannot express in particular terms (i.e. that we
experience something inexpressable). The beauty lies in that paradox. Criticism that tries to be universal or objective does not awake a subject or bring him/her closer to aesthetic experience. Rather,
this type of criticism only serves to exacerbate the rupture between particular and universal while pretending it doesn't exist.

Now, on the other hand, if we finally escape from this philosophical realm, maybe wine criticism is simply an extension of the like/dislike paradigm into a setting that feeds into the command and control
hierarchical structure that our society has continued since the Romans created the military chain of

command. Wine criticism that rates by experts creates both a hierarchy in taste and a hierarchy in wine

itself. This feeds pretty easily into a digestible package for consumers. Even if wine critics believe

they are doing something else, the practical goal of their job is to sell and market wine. Let's not pretend that they are making aesthetic judgements.

Sorry for the messed up formatting.

Shea wrote:
07.31.08 at 12:05 PM

It is certainly interesting how this topic has bloomed in the wine community. I think this discussion
needs some clarification, however.

What, ultimately, is the goal of tasting wine? What is the goal of evaluating wine? Stating something is
objective often suggests links to some sort of abstract 'truth' quality. Stating something is subjective
popularly suggests some sort of 'relativism'. I do not think these are:

1. accurate descriptions of the nature of objectivity and subjectivity,

2. accurately linked to the many diverse goals of tasting and evaluating wine.

To be strict, one might differentiate deciding whether or not one 'likes' something from an 'aesthetic'
experience. Liking or disliking is relative and does not demand anything more. However, a claim of
aesthetic evaluation usually subscribes to objectivity by an implicit demand that everyone else - that
is, all other subjects - agree with the evaluation of something as 'beautiful' (let's keep designations
such as good or bad out of the aesthetic realm). An aesthetic experience of some object (e.g. wine),
then, must be filtered through a given subject. But, the objective element arises in this demand for universal acclamation. It is as though the subject has bridged the gap between the particular object
being experienced and some form of universal objectivity that (theoretically, although not practically) binds all subjects together.

In any case, is the goal of drinking/evaluating wine really to enter into this type of aesthetic experience? Criticism itself is almost never an aesthetic experience. Experiencing a painting is completely different from criticizing it. Criticism is always retrospective and never universal. But, at the same time, if a critic is making claims about the objective value or truth of something, then they are deigning to make their words have universal value. That seems to miss the fundamental paradox of aesthetic experience - that we experience what we cannot express in particular terms (i.e. that we
experience something inexpressable). The beauty lies in that paradox. Criticism that tries to be universal or objective does not awake a subject or bring him/her closer to aesthetic experience. Rather,
this type of criticism only serves to exacerbate the rupture between particular and universal while pretending it doesn't exist.

Now, on the other hand, if we finally escape from this philosophical realm, maybe wine criticism is simply an extension of the like/dislike paradigm into a setting that feeds into the command and control
hierarchical structure that our society has continued since the Romans created the military chain of

command. Wine criticism that rates by experts creates both a hierarchy in taste and a hierarchy in wine

itself. This feeds pretty easily into a digestible package for consumers. Even if wine critics believe

they are doing something else, the practical goal of their job is to sell and market wine. Let's not pretend that they are making aesthetic judgements.

Sorry for the messed up formatting.

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